Viola Davis, Julius Tennon Talk ‘Woman King’ and Historical Accuracy

Viola Davis, Julius Tennon Talk ‘Woman King’ and Historical Accuracy


As the film team for “The Woman King” travels to Brazil to promote the historic epic, Viola Davis and her husband and production partner Julius Tennon celebrate the success of the film’s No. 1 debut at the box office, which grossed $19 million in own country.

The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10, followed by theaters a week later. It is one of the few films where critics and the general public have given it an equally positive reception, with a 95% critics and 99% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It even earned an “A+” Cinema Score.

Davis emphasizes that the story of “The Woman King” can touch all audiences, not just black women.


“There was a sense that our stories are not universal and cannot reach the white man or woman or the Hispanic man or woman,” Davis recalls. Variety. “I feel like human stories are for everyone, not just black consumption.”

Today, Davis says, a white woman asked her, “Are you surprised that your story could reach me as a white woman?”

“No,” she says, she replied. “I know that my story can reach you as your story can reach me. The only one who is surprised is you.”

Davis emerges as an action star in a film that combines large-scale historical epics such as “Braveheart” (1995) and “Gladiator” (2001), both Oscar winners for best picture. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film’s scope and brevity is a seamless effort, with remarkable performances, collaborating with an impressive team of craftsmen, including composer Terence Blanchard and cinematographer Polly Morgan. In the film, Davis plays Nanisca, a brave warrior and a general of the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Davis is an Oscar winner for “Fences” (2016) and is the most nominated black actress with four noms. In comparison, 14 cases of black women have been nominated for best actress, with one winner, Halle Berry (for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball”). Meryl Streep has more nominations in the category, with 17, with two statuettes.

The film will be a showcase for the next generation of black women in Hollywood, most notably Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and Jayme Lawson. “It’s always about the next generation, and that’s our job in this life. It’s about running your leg of the race and passing the baton to the great runner. But you have to be brave enough to run the race. You have to be brave enough to create both original content that moves the story,” Davis says.

“Let’s be clear, Hollywood is about commerce,” said Tennon, who also stars in the film as Moru. “If we want to keep making these kinds of films, they have to make money. We understand that.”

Read Varieties interview with the two producers of ‘The Woman King’.

“The Woman King” team members Sheila Atim, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Boyega, Viola Davis, Cathy Schulman, Thuso Mbedu, Julius Tennon and Lashana Lynch at the Toronto Film Festival.

Michelle Quance for variety

How does it feel to see a movie you poured your heart and soul into do so well at the box office?

Viola Davis: It feels like I never doubted that “The Woman King” would land because it landed with me. It landed with Gina. It landed with Julius. It’s an undeniable, powerful story. The way we see numbers today is not the way we see the numbers. I think people tend to say that we only represent a certain percentage of the cash register. We know black women. We know they will take people they work with, spouses and families, and come back five or six times over the weekend. We’re in an industry that doesn’t see black women’s power at the global box office.

Julius Tennon: There is always a little bit of fear of the unknown. Hollywood likes to have a formula in the way they market ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you’re making a movie like this, we know that people of color, especially black people, are hungry for this kind of content. And if you have Viola’s presence, like the one she’s had for the past few years, we know how to reach these audiences that studios don’t follow.

Allies and black celebrities such as Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, Dwayne Wade and Octavia Spencer bought out movie theaters in communities that may be struggling to buy tickets to see the film. Is that something you would like to see more of to move forward?

Davis: I would, because to move the story forward in terms of diversity and inclusion, we all have to do it together. This is not a lone wolf fight. When you shift cultural narratives, it takes people coming together to change it. Only, you operate in a vacuum.

Tennon: What we understand is what the studio wants, and they want movies to perform. Hollywood is about commerce and if we want to keep making these kinds of movies, they have to make money. Let’s be clear about that, and we understand. We must continue to support each other.

After the film’s success, are there any discussions about a sequel, especially given the post-credits sequence with Sheila Atim?

Tennon: Well, you know, it feels like we can [do a sequel]. We haven’t discussed it yet.

Are you open to more if the studio wants more?

davy: I’m open to more, but let me tell you. I was already the oldest warrior on the battlefield. If we make a sequel I hope I still have teeth [laughs]But yeah, I’m totally open to it. Wide open. Always.

#BoycottWomanKing popped up this weekend with people saying it didn’t address the Dahomey Kingdom’s involvement in slavery. We don’t see those kinds of complaints when a Christopher Columbus movie is released that doesn’t deal with cultural genocide – what do you say to those who feel those parts of history are left out?

Davis: First of all, I agree with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s statement that you’re not going to win a fight on Twitter. We entered the story where the kingdom was in motion, at a crossroads. They were looking for a way to keep their civilization and kingdom alive. It was not until the late 1800s that they were decimated. Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be like this.

Tennon: We are now what we call ‘edu-tainment’. It’s history, but we need to get a license. We have to entertain people. If we could just tell a history lesson, which we could very well do, that would be a documentary. Unfortunately, people wouldn’t be in the theaters doing the same thing we saw this weekend. We didn’t want to shy away from the truth. The history is vast and there are truths about it out there. If people want to know more, they can research more.

Davis: Part of the story that touched me as an artist was that these women were unwanted. They were recruited between the ages of eight and fourteen. It was the women who were not considered desirable. Nobody wanted to marry them. They were unmanageable. They were recruited by the king to fight for the kingdom of Dahomey. They were not allowed to marry or have children. Those who refused the call were beheaded. That is also part of the story. People are really emotionally shifted. I saw a TikTok video today of women in an AMC theater bathroom, and I don’t think they knew each other. They were all singing and ruminating. That cannot be quantified in words.

Are you two interested in working together as actors again, like a rom-com or something that showcases the chemistry you share as performers?

Tennon: If the right thing came, we would. We always talk about doing something on stage because we’re both stage actors, and it’s more visceral on stage.

Davis: Our life is a rom-com [laughs]. It’s really fun. We tell everyone when we enter the room, we bring the fun.

To see the ranked predictions for each individual category, go to Varieties Oscars Hub.


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